Courts & the Law, Legislature

Time to stop the foot-dragging and get serious about correcting NC’s legislative districts (video)

While the top news story of the day may be Sen. John McCain’s ‘No’ vote ending the GOP’s effort to repeal Obamacare, don’t miss our story over on the main Policy Watch site about Thursday’s court hearing on redrawing the state House and Senate districts, which  were unconstitutionally and racially gerrymandered.

Courts and law reporter Melissa Boughton details how the U.S. district judges hearing the case scolded legislative leaders for their lack of action in drawing new maps. Here’s a short excerpt from Boughton’s story:

[ U.S. District Judge Catherine] Eagles agreed: “You don’t seem serious, so what’s our assurance that you’re serious?”

Strach respectfully disagreed and said lawmakers had already appointed members to each redistricting committee, submitted a timeline to the court and met to discuss strategy and goals.

“Somebody who takes it seriously has a plan to do it right,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

He argued that any shorter of a timeline wouldn’t allow for proper comment from lawmakers involved and the public.

Eagles wasn’t buying his argument.

“But you’ve created those problems by not doing this over the last year,” she said. “That’s the legislature’s fault.”

This weekend on News & Views with Chris Fitzsimon we sit down with state Rep. Grier Martin to discuss what should happen next with the legislative maps. Click below for a preview of our radio interview:

Look for much more discussion about correcting the gerrymandered maps when the General Assembly reconvenes next week in spacial session.

In the meantime, read Melissa Boughton’s full story here.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

In signing wind moratorium and executive order promoting wind energy, Gov. Cooper tries to have cake, eat it too

(Illustration: Creative Commons)

House Bill 589, a promising renewable energy bill until it was saddled with a last-minute wind farm moratorium, is now law. Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bill today.

From the governor’s press release:

A strong renewable energy industry is good for our environment and our economy. This bill is critical for the future of significant increases in our already booming solar industry. I strongly oppose the ugly, last-minute, politically motivated wind moratorium. However, this fragile and hard fought solar deal will be lost if I veto this legislation and that veto is sustained.

However, the governor softened the blow of the 18-month wind farm moratorium by also enacting an Executive Order No. 11, which Cooper said in a press release, “directs DEQ to continue recruiting wind energy investments and to move forward with all of the behind the scenes work involved with bringing wind energy projects online, including reviewing permits and conducting pre-application review for prospective sites. I want wind energy facilities to come online quickly when this moratorium expires so our economy and our environment can continue to benefit.”

The order also directs the NC Department of Environmental Quality to work with the Department of Administration to conduct a feasibility study regarding renewable energy and energy efficiency projects on state-owned land and property.

The renewables bill was a product of year-long negotiations among utilities and the solar industry. Not until the final days of the session did Sen. Harry Brown, a longtime opponent of wind energy, tack a moratorium onto the end of the bill. He and other wind energy opponents claimed that the farms, with their turbines as tall as 600 feet, would conflict with military training exercises. However, no one currently serving with the military with the authority to negotiate those conflicts publicly spoke against the moratorium.

The moratorium would have lasted for four years, if not for pushback from Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, who represents several northeastern counties, where these farms would be built.

Environment, Legislature

After two months, DEQ still hasn’t produced public records on $1.3 million SePro deal for chemicals in Jordan Lake

After more than two months, the NC Department of Environmental Quality still has not provided contracts and proposals regarding an Indiana-based company’s $1.3 million plan to chemically treat Jordan Lake — a plan that is now law.

On May 19, NCPW filed a public records request with DEQ seeking any contracts and proposals, both draft and final, with SePro. Despite NCPW’s repeated requests for the information, over the past two months, DEQ spokespersons have said that the department’s attorneys were still reviewing the documents for any potential proprietary information that would have to be redacted.

Under North Carolina law, governments must provide public records within “a reasonable amount of time.” Any redactions must be explained. Nonetheless, the law is often flouted. The McCrory administration delayed filling some requests for six months to more than two years. Records were often redacted with no explanation.

After 2 months @NCDEQ still hasn’t produced public records on SePro deal Click To Tweet

As NCPW reported on May 25, SePro, through its powerful lobbyist and former House speaker Harold Brubaker, carved out $1.3 million in the state budget for a trial program to treat Jordan Lake with EPA-approved algaecides and herbicides. The budget passed both the House and Senate with that earmark. DEQ is expected to hire the company to study the effectiveness of using copper sulfate and phosphorus-lock chemicals in the reservoir, a drinking water source for more than 300,000 people.

However, independent scientists, as well as those within DEQ and the EPA, internal emails show, disapprove of these methods because of toxic risks to ecosystems and questions regarding the chemicals’ cost effectiveness in controlling algae.

According to the budget language, testing and sampling to allow DEQ to issue a permit for the SePro trial must begin by Sept. 1.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, which built Jordan Lake in the early 1980s, must approve of the trial. Considering the Corps’ dismay over the failed SolarBees project “another legislative fiat” their buy-in is questionable. Hank Heusinkveld, spokesman for the USACE’s office in Wilmington, said the Corps does not have a proposal from SePro. The project’s status is “in limbo,” Heusinkveld said.

The trial program would end in 2020, with annual reports due to the legislature each September. Any unused money would revert to the General Fund.

Environment, Legislature

Complaint: Lawmakers could be sued over leachate bill because their election wasn’t legit

Leachate aerosolization can spray thousands of gallons of wastewater per minute. (Screenshot from Kelly Houston’s leachate aerosolization website)

If lawmakers override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the leachate aerosolization bill, they could open themselves to a lawsuit, according to court documents filed in the Covington redistricting case.

Attached to a legal brief is a declaration and a letter from the Southern Environmental Law Center. It states that since 28 seats in the legislature are the result of an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, the General Assembly has as a whole, “assumed usurper status.” With the 28 seats now in question, SELC contends, the legislature “no longer has the authority to override gubernatorial vetoes.” And nor will it, the court documents read, “until constitutional districts are drawn and legal” and a General Assembly lawfully elected.

One legislator told NCPW that there appears to be enough votes in the Senate to trump Cooper’s veto. A third-fifths majority is required in each chamber to override a veto. In the Senate, that would equal 30 votes; in the House, it take 72.

When the bill was up for its original vote, it passed the Senate 29-14, with four Republicans and two Democrats being absent. The House passed the bill 75-45.

On July 21, Derb Carter Jr. of the SELC sent a letter to Cooper, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger. “If the usurper legislature does attempt to override the veto, it opens itself up to litigation,” the letter reads. The matter could go to court where the SELC could ask for a declaratory judgment that the leachate law is “unconstitutional and void.”

House Bill 576 would require state environmental officials to allow landfill owners to use untested technology to dispose of contaminated leachate. Essentially, landfill juice that is currently collected in tanks and hauled offsite would be sprayed from a large snowblower-like apparatus into the air. That raises public health and environmental concerns because it’s unclear what types of contaminants would fall onto the landfill itself and what would float downwind. Last year, the inventor of the technology, Kelly Houston, contributed $5,000 to the campaign of Sen. Trudy Wade, who has supported the bill twice in the Senate. Rep. Jimmy Dixon sponsored it in the House.

 

Declaration of Derb Carter SELC by LisaSorg on Scribd

agriculture, Environment, Legislature

As EPA prepares to rescind the Waters of the US rule, state ag department has an extra $250K sitting around

A problem a lot of state agencies wish they had: Where to spend an extra $250,000? (Photo: Philip Taylor, Creative Commons)

H ouse lawmakers handed the state Department of Agriculture $250,000 to fight a legal battle that is all but moot. And now, unlike many cash-strapped agencies, the department has an extra quarter-million dollars that it needs to spend.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced late last week that he would rescind the Waters of the United States rule to less stringent, pre-2015 regulations. It is the first step in redefining what constitutes waterways that are regulated under the Clean Water Act. Big ag opposed the rule because swine and cattle farms were subject to stricter environmental regulations if their runoff reached waterways regulated under WOTUS.

The House siphoned the money from a rural grants program and gave it to the state agriculture department to pay for its legal battle against the WOTUS rule. (The amount is less than the $1 million the Senate had proposed extracting from the Department of Environmental Quality for that purpose.) The funding survived negotiations in the conference committee and made it into the final budget, now law.

Budget language allows the Department of Agriculture to use the money to hire and pay for outside counsel — ironically, a legal prerogative lawmakers stripped from Gov. Cooper. But the budget doesn’t detail what happens to the money should the department choose not to pursue a lawsuit. For example, some department budgets revert unused money to the General Fund.

If Pruitt completes the rollback as expected, the state agriculture department will have to decide how to spend its windfall. “As of yet, no decision has been made about how the department will use the appropriation if WOTUS is rescinded,” Agriculture Department Public Affairs Director Brian Long said in an email.

The agriculture budget does list worthy programs in the department that undoubtedly could use more funding: Money is needed to buy out swine farms in the 100-year flood plain; currently, it can receive unused funds from the Forest Service for that purpose. Or the department could preserve more farmland. Or it could toss a few dollars to the beehive grant fund, which is open to donations. Or work in concert with DEQ to identify levels of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides in surface, ground and drinking water.

Even though Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler has long opposed WOTUS, his department didn’t even request the money, according to Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County. At a House ag committee meeting last month, she also noted that the Trump administration was rolling back WOTUS, making the appropriation obsolete.

For these reasons, Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County, called the the department funding “not a wise use of taxpayer money.”